Ballroom Culture’s Rich Alternative to the Trans/Cis Model of Gender

A scene from Kiki (2016), a documentary about the modern ballroom community.

Story AB/Hard Working Movies

In April, the boundary between transgender and not-transgender was officially written into American English when the Merriam-Webster dictionary formally adopted the word cisgender. (n. ”Someone whose internal sense of gender corresponds with the sex the person was identified as having at birth.”) Like the word straight, cisgender expands what we can discuss about gender and sexuality by naming something that had previously been unmarked or simply considered “natural.” Simultaneously, by recognizing that everyone has an internal sense of gender—not just trans people—the word normalizes transgender experiences.

Yet it’s worth taking a moment, as we stand on this important linguistic threshold, to survey another possibility, a different way of dividing and describing our experiences of gender, which has existed (and still exists) parallel to the ideas of transgender/cisgender-hood. I’m talking about the femme queens and butch queens of the ballroom world, a community founded by black and Latino queer people.

A quick and necessary digression on the history of ballroom: Large drag balls were an institution in New York City’s queer black community stretching back at least to the 1920s, when literally thousands of queer and straight people attended such events as the Hamilton Lodge Ball in Harlem. By the 1970s, the balls had become competitions that almost exclusively catered to queer people of color, offering a safe space to gather publicly, a chance to be recognized and rewarded for their art, and a welcoming and less racist queer community. In 1977, an enterprising trans woman named Crystal Labeija formed the first “house”—the House of Labeija—as a way of distinguishing her balls from other balls, formalizing the nurturing and supportive aspects of the scene as a whole, and bringing together some of the best performers (or “voguers,” as they would come to be known) under her umbrella. Soon, other houses formed, and their balls featured a wide array of categories in which participants could compete, or “walk” (as in “walk the runway”). But the premier category, the one everyone came to see, was femme queen performance.

“Femme queen is another word for transgender [woman],” said Nicole Bowles, LGBTQ recruitment specialist at Exponents, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of AIDS, substance use, and incarceration. Bowles has walked femme queen performance since the early ’90s, and today, she is the Overall East Coast Mother of the House of Khan, a ballroom institution that’s been around since 1986.

A butch queen, Bowles explained, is a gay man. “He may be effeminate, but he doesn’t have to be,” she elaborated, noting that the “butch” part simply means male, not “manly.”

As for the “queen” part of both terms? “It’s the line between us. The unity,” Bowles said emphatically. “Because we are family. We are queens—but he’s a guy queen, and I’m a girl queen.”

This understanding is 180 degrees from the emerging mainstream idea of the trans/cis dichotomy, in which these two identities are presented as polar opposites with no overlap. This difference stems from the vastly different origins and purposes behind these two ways of conceptualizing gender.

“Butch queen” and “femme queen” are terms by and for a queer community, where gender isn’t as cut and dried as it is in the straight world, for a variety of reasons. Because sexual desires and actions are themselves gendered, even the most masculine gay man is always dancing on the outskirts of cisgenderhood. Under queen logic, the boundary between “gay man” and “trans woman” is porous, with an accepted and acknowledged path between the two (although it’s important to note that this is far from a universal experience, and many trans women have never felt themselves to be or identified themselves as anything other than women).

And while a gay man and a trans woman may have very different understandings of their identities, from an outside perspective, both will be judged and punished for the same perceived violations of gender norms—or as Bowles put it, “a gay guy would get beat but not quicker than a femme queen.” To put it simply: Unless and until we completely dismantle patriarchy and the assumed connections between biological sex, sexuality, and gender, it will be impossible to completely separate “gay” from “trans.”

“Butch queen” and “femme queen” are rooted in these shared experiences of queerness—these shared experiences of queen-ness—that connect both identities. They are terms designed to highlight the conceptual overlap between these categories, and also to celebrate it, turning the derogatory queer into the honorific queen. They emerged in a time and place where (some) gay men of color and (some) trans women of color were coming together to create a community that protected them from the straight white world, and therefore, they needed terms that linguistically unified them.

Raul Rivera, the community engagement manager at the arts nonprofit Space Works, and a longtime participant in New York’s ballroom scene, said that that community is the heart of what ballroom is about.

“It exists to create togetherness,” he said. “To make people feel included.” Although it’s been years since he actively walked the balls, Rivera said that he can still show up at any bar in America that predominantly caters to queer men and trans women of color, and someone will recognize him as Tyhierry Mizrahi, of the House of Mizrahi.

Transgender/cisgender terminology, on the other hand, has emerged as a way of explaining queer genders to straight people—and increasingly, to clueless and/or hostile lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. For this reason, it focuses on queer difference, instead of similarity, and on laying claim to a unique identity that is unencumbered by a connection to a specific kind of gay male community. This opens space for a variety of trans people who may not feel comfortable within the ballroom scene, and by so doing, creates a different community all its own—one that allows different kinds of trans people, with different experiences of gender, to come together around their shared trans-ness.

But it also glosses over the very real connections that exist between the gendered experiences of (some) LGB people and (some) trans people. Trans and cis are words made for a straight world, where these divisions are cleaner and clearer. Linguistically, instead of explicitly celebrating queen-ness, they reach for the kind of scientific terminology that has historically been used to provide a patina of medical legitimacy to otherwise frightening sexual differences.

Of course, the terms “femme queen” and “butch queen” are limited themselves, as they focus only on the queer community of folks who were identified as male at birth. (For a more thorough discussion of the entire gender/sexuality schema in ballroom, Marlon Bailey’s Butch Queens up in Pumps is a fantastic resource.) However, they offer us another way to think about sexuality and gender, one which is less concerned with the straight gaze or being comprehensible to outsiders. And it’s important to remember that the community these words describe is still in flux, and as living language, these terms themselves are constantly evolving and expanding to keep up.

Addressing this fact in particular, Rivera mentioned the emergence of a new ballroom category called “female figure.” In the early 2000s, “women’s performance” —where cisgender women vogued against each other—had almost died out entirely as a category; femme queen performance was getting less attention, and the scene as a whole “was going through a transition.” Butch queen up in drags (aka drag queen voguing) was now the hot thing. This was in large part due to Leyomi Mizrahi, a voguing superstar who at the time walked as a butch queen in drag and who would go on to become famous as part of Vogue Evolution, the group that was featured in America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV in 2009.*

“People wanted to see her vogue,” Rivera said, “and in particular, to see her vogue against femme queens.” Thus, the “female figure” category was born, which emphasized the gender performance of its contestants over the gender identity. In other words, it accommodates gay men in drag, trans women, and cis women all under the umbrella of presenting a feminine look. This move allowed cisgender women to perform in what was now the top category at most balls, which launched women like Danielle Ninja and Kia Labeija to ballroom fame. Their celebrity reignited the women’s performance category, bringing more cisgender women into the balls. Once again, the ballroom scene was using language to emphasize community, increase collectivity, and include more people.

How these changes in the demographics of the community and the categories at the balls will affect the overall language around, or understanding of, gender and sexuality in ballroom remain to be seen. Yet they serve as vibrant reminders that there is no one correct way of dividing up our identities, no matter which words make it into the dictionary.

*Correction, Aug. 12, 2016: This post originally misstated that Vogue Evolution won America’s Best Dance Crew in 2009. They placed fifth. Additionally, the sentence has been clarified to indicate that Leyomi Mizrahi competed as a “butch queen in drag” on the show, rather than claiming that as an identity.